St. Albert schools won’t require students to wear masks this fall, and the co-chair of an Edmonton medical association committee says that goes against best practice when it comes to protecting kids from COVID.
The St. Albert Public, Sturgeon Public, and Greater St. Albert Catholic school boards published back-to-school health guidelines for COVID-19 during the week of Aug. 18. The Conseil scolaire Centre-Nord was set to discuss its COVID plans on Aug. 25 after this story went to press.
The province released its new COVID-19 health protocols for schools Aug. 13. The protocols dropped most of the safety measures schools used last year, including mandatory masking, cohorting, physical distancing, and quarantining whole classes upon case detection.
The province still requires students to wear masks on a bus, perform daily COVID-19 screening tests, and to isolate themselves for 10 days if they have specific COVID-19 symptoms.
Education Minister Adriana LaGrange said local boards could bring in additional COVID safety measures if they wanted.
No masks, and why
Sturgeon Public, St. Albert Public, and GSACRD schools would not require masks in schools this fall, their back-to-school guides said.
That’s in contrast to Edmonton Public Schools' guide, which required all students and staff to wear masks in school buildings.
Edmonton has different demographics from St. Albert, and the province was not requiring masks, said St. Albert Public superintendent Krimsen Sumners. The board also had reports last year of young children not wearing masks properly, which reduced their effectiveness, and of mask-related skin irritation.
“Our community is fairly divided on what they believe is the right course,” Sumners said on masks.
St. Albert Public and GSACRD have instead strongly recommended students and staff wear masks in school, with visitors encouraged (GSACRD) or required (St. Albert Public) to wear them. St. Albert Public would also give K-6 students a free reuseable mask. Sturgeon Public said in its guide that it would support anyone who chose to mask.
Noel Gibney, a retired professor of critical care medicine at the University of Alberta and co-chair of the Edmonton Zone Medical Staff Association’s COVID-19 committee, said the province should have required masks in schools, noting that B.C. as of Aug. 25 required masks in all indoor public spaces, schools included. There was ample evidence that masks protected others from COVID transmission and that COVID was primarily transmitted by aerosols and droplets.
“The best practice, unquestionably, is masking indoors,” he said.
While he could see why masks might prove impractical amongst Kindergarteners, Gibney said youths in Grades Two and up understand the importance of masks and could wear them properly.
Ventilation and cohorts
Gibney said the two best ways to prevent COVID transmission were masks and proper ventilation. He recommended that schools test their rooms for CO2 concentrations and bring in portable HEPA purifiers if levels exceeded 700 parts per million, as that was a sign of poor ventilation.
The province’s guidelines do not call for CO2 tests but say schools should maintain ventilation systems in accordance with the manufacturer’s guidelines and open windows and doors when possible — a stance also taken by Sturgeon Public.
GSACRD and St. Albert Public emphasized the importance of proper ventilation and regular maintenance in their guides, with GSACRD saying its ventilation systems met or exceeded provincial requirements.
GSACRD and St. Albert Public planned to keep K-6 students in cohorts (their assigned classes) for additional protection, as most were too young to be vaccinated against COVID. GSACRD assistant superintendent of learning services Cathy Giesbrect said cohorts would not be used in junior and senior highs, as most students in those grades were fully vaccinated. The two boards had also switched back to a two-term model for high school, having used four terms last year for cohorting.
Gibney said he was ambivalent about the value of cohorting at this time. Cohorts were meant to aid contact tracing, but contact tracing requires COVID cases to be reported to schools — something the province was no longer doing.
The three boards took different stances on field trips and assemblies.
The province’s guidelines place no restrictions on them, and neither do those of Sturgeon Public.
GSACRD and St. Albert Public planned to allow local field trips but would hold off on international and interprovincial ones for now due to COVID-related travel restrictions. Sumners said St. Albert Public would hold off on any in-person field trips until October to see how the pandemic developed.
Unlike GSACRD and Sturgeon Public, St. Albert Public has banned in-person assemblies in elementary schools this school year in order to maintain student cohorts. It has also banned in-school visitors and volunteers until at least October and closed its water fountains indefinitely.
Sumner said the water-fountain ban was an additional safety measure, adding that students would still be able to use the water bottle fill stations found in most schools.
Gibney said all evidence suggests that there was minimal risk of getting COVID from touching surfaces and called a ban on fountains “nonsense.”
“It’s theatre to show people you’re making an effort even though it is just a nuisance to kids.”
The Sturgeon and two St. Albert boards said they would continue to use enhanced sanitation, designated doors, and staggered entry/exit times to address COVID. They would continue to promote proper hand hygiene practices, with GSACRD and St. Albert Public members required to follow them. Option classes and extracurricular activities would also resume.
Gibney said St. Albert’s school boards were not following best practices when it came to COVID prevention, and criticized the province for not mandating mask use in schools.
“We’ve set things up at the moment at the lowest possible level of protection for students and teachers,” he said, and should expect significant outbreaks in school this fall.
“The province, in my opinion, has abandoned the people of Alberta.”
Visit the St. Albert Public, Sturgeon Public, and GSACRD websites for full details.